The Very Impatient Caterpillar, illustrated and written by Ross Burach, published by Scholastic, ISBN: 978-1338289411.
Bears Don’t Eat Egg Sandwiches, illustrated by Rachel Suzanne, written by Julie Fulton, published by Maverick Publishing (distributed by Lerner), ISBN: 978-1848863583.
Let’s Have a Dog Party!, illustrated and written by Mikela Prevost, published by Viking, ISBN: 978-0451481177.
Once a month I read stories and sing songs with 4 and 5 year olds who travel from their nearby preschool to the public library where I work. These kids and teachers are every children’s librarian’s dream: they absolutely love books, especially funny, goofy, outlandish, silly, preposterous ones. They adore singing their hearts out. They are also enablers, allowing me to become extremely hammy and go over the top with character voices, sound effects, and slapstick shtick. It’s a blast trying new material out on them.
For the April storytime, I began with Ross Burach’s The Very Impatient Caterpillar, and oh wow Burach delivers one giddy deliriously funny romp. It’s an absolute blast reading the conversation between the titular character, exasperated that the metamorphosis progress will take TWO WHOLE WEEKS!, and a far more patient peer. Burach tells the tale completely with speech bubbles. His wildly expressive cartoon characters whip fast-paced dialogue at one another. Burach takes us inside the caterpillar’s chrysalis where it engages in a frenzied self-directed “you can do this!” “no you can’t!” monologue that is an absolute joy to act out (I adore the moment we see a perplexed squirrel observe the shaking chrysalis, hearing the caterpillar’s argument with itself). I love humor that surprises me and it’s a thrill to report that I never knew what Burach was going to do next. The kids in my audience laughed with glee at every line and every colorful illustration. Many funny picture books I have read this year have great scenarios but don’t quite stick the landing, this one does (and more), ending with a very funny punchline. Burach makes it all look easy, when we all know that creating a brilliantly funny picture book with expert page turns takes skill and, well, patience.
Next up I shared Bears Don’t Eat Egg Sandwiches, written with succinct immediacy by Julie Fulton and illustrated with inventive joy by Rachel Suzanne, with the group. This might be the most British picture book of the year. I wanted to read it in my best British accent, and looking back, I think I did. A resourceful red-haired boy named Jack has made himself a pile of egg sandwiches when suddenly a hungry bear appears at his door. Usually at the beginning of a book I give the kids a special job to do, a recurring phrase to shout out. This book makes that process easy. Whenever Jack offers the bear an egg sandwich, the bear shouts the title “BEAR DON’T EAT EGG SANDWICHES!” So on a count of 1, 2, 3…I have the kids yell that line with me. Oh, they love it. The story is simple: we know what the bear really wants to eat, but the way Jack gets out of being chomped is pretty darn inspired. And very funny.
And finally, Mikela Prevost’s Let’s Have a Dog Party! has, as Betsy Bird pointed out, one of the best covers of the year. I mean, look at that poor beleaguered pooch. Not exactly enjoying that surprise party vibe. Prevost starts off with a humorous situation: a dog named Frank just wants to rest in his favorite spot but his owner Kate and her friends suddenly appear, invade his space, and force his birthday party on him. The children, meaning well but not reading the canine’s body language, wrap up things Frank already owns (plus a dried-up lizard from outside) and re-gift them. They plop a party hat on his head and tie balloons to his body. We see (and hear) the kids from Frank’s exhausted POV–their mouths opened wide, laughing, singing, completely oblivious to the dog’s agony. Prevost’s art crackles with comic intensity. In the storytime, I had the children sing Happy Birthday to Frank (although the words to the song don’t appear in the text) and told them to do it way off-key. They happily obliged. When Frank runs to hide in a smelly shoe closet, Kate realizes her oopsy mistake. Her understanding friends leave. What emerges is a story about empathy and respecting boundaries. Prevost uses humor to deliver a message that we all need to hear. Sometimes a quiet celebration is the best one. And although it ends the humor-drenched storytime on a reflective note, it’s also good to end a program with a tale that invites sweet slumber.